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The Wisdom of Untidiness: Less is More

When confronted with expressions like “clean house, clean mind”, when a new book like “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up” makes the best seller list, or when TV shows like Hoarders make sweeping claims about the psychological reasons for clutter, I must again and again face the sorry fact that I am not, nor have ever been, a tidy person.

It is not for lack of encouragement.

In high school I shared a room with a sister who constantly reminded me that I was a lazy and careless person for disregarding our space with such persistence, as if I was trying to make her life more difficult.

She came to visit when my son was two months old. Immediately on entering the house, she cheerfully noted the mess.

“You have not changed since high school,” she remarked.

Don’t you remember, I wanted to say to her, how gleefully we stuffed all of our clothes under the bed when we were little girls? We laughed like maniacs, partners in the crime of untidiness.

Now she would laugh if she knew the story of how, just a few months prior to her visit, my partner and I had been expelled from our previous accommodation. Though the reasons for our banishment were never articulated, they were also not secret to us or any of our friends. Of all the reasons the most glaringly obvious was that we were simply too messy.

First they’d been my partner’s friends who needed tenants to house-sit while they went on a long trip overseas. Then they returned to be flatmates in their own house.

“Stay as long as you like,” they’d said.
Perhaps, we thought, they needed the rent money.

In retrospect I can see that their way of increasing rent prices by tiny increments was a delicate way of asking us to move out.

Of course untidiness is always unintentional. One does not mean to leave pantry doors ajar. When one makes toast, she does not intend to find it weeks later, golden brown and stale, still waiting patiently in the toaster. Nobody intends to acquire more things than they have room to house and nobody intends for these things to overflow into communal areas. A half drunk mug of coffee has not been ‘left out’, which might imply some kind of nefarious plan, but it has simply been forgotten along with the partially read newspaper.

The first time it was highlighted to us that we were not particularly good flatmates was one month shy of our planned moving date.

“Maybe you guys can do a bit more?” They said, perhaps not knowing that we did not have a clue what this meant.

Tidiness was somehow an assumed habit, and to not have it was an embarrassing lack of which no one could politely speak.

What tidy people do not realize is that untidiness is not laziness, but simply a kind of blindness. My partner’s bed was the first I’d shared in which I also competed for space with a pile of clothes. I chalked this up to lack of space in his room, no closets. I admired him as the first person I’d met who didn’t apologize for his untidiness. I realize now that he simply didn’t notice the pile, which had been a part of his life for a long time. I suppose if I’d ever pointed it out he might have worked on it. Instead I found that when he came over to my flat there always seemed to be a pile of clothes on the foot of my bed too.

Regarding our flatmates’ request, I did try to “do more”. How vexing to vacuum one day, only to catch our flatmates vacuuming again the very next day, as if I had missed an obvious accumulation of dirt somewhere.

It seems to me that tidy people are as blind to cleanliness as untidy people to mess. In cleaning, one’s eyes adjust to see only more things to clean.

As you tidy, you notice a few bits of dirt or food or lint on the floor. This leads to vacuuming and possibly to mopping, at which point you’ve got the bucket out so because you saw some smudges on the walls before when you were vacuuming you’ll clean the walls too. Now that you’re at it, rubber gloves and all, you should also undertake the odious task of cleaning the bathroom, the tub, the toilet, inside and out. Then washing the windowsills and the windows — you can’t stop at one. Onto the pantry, the fridge. You cannot simply empty the rubbish: you also have to wash out the bin and then you must wash the mysterious and foul smelling splatter on the wall behind the bin. And on and on. There is only more dust, dirt, grime and filth everywhere you look.

Madness ensues. Let us throw away anything that does not ‘spark joy.’

One day, two weeks before our moving date, our flatmates demanded we leave sooner.

“You must be gone by Monday!” They shouted. Or at least, I wish they’d shouted. In fact we received this memo by text message.

Aha, the passive aggressive fury of the wronged party! Me, I mean. Can I appeal to your sense of sympathy even further by mentioning that I was pregnant at the time of this insult?

Although, as my sister kindly pointed out, this experience did not teach us to be a tidier pair, I did learn something about the nature of cleanliness, if only to confirm a deep-seated suspicion that overzealous cleaning habits are not a desirable characteristic. The anxious psychopathology of meticulous attention to specks of dust explains the need for a different concoction of cleaning agent for every aspect of the house — god forbid you should use the same spray on the floor as the table.

Am I just spoiled? Obviously a certain amount of cleanliness prevents the intrusion of pests, rodents and disease into our homes. The work of cleaning is at heart about keeping ourselves and our families safe. A noble endeavor, certainly worthy of praise.

Yet in our rush to save ourselves from bacteria we paradoxically weaken our own defenses against it. A child exposed to bacteria has a better chance of building up his immunity to that same bacteria than one who has only breathed in the caustic smell of bleach.

We are advised to clear our lives of unnecessary ‘extras.’ Yet each time I decide to clean out my closet I discover that come the change in season I am sorely lacking in suitable clothing. I wonder whether the activity of freeing up space has simply become a means of consumption in itself, tied up in our disposable culture: for how can one reuse or repurpose items she no longer owns?

It is not surprising that you only ever hear of three kinds of sprees: murder sprees, cleaning sprees and shopping sprees. Are we not murderers as we witness the ants in their doomed march to the ant poison? And now what will we put in that vast empty space once occupied by a distressing pile of old junk with which we’ve finally managed to part? We reward our cleaning by shopping.

We bring our new MDF modular cabinet home and paint it and sand it to give it that ‘shabby chic’ look, that authentic retro feeling. The ersatz life, nothing that extra storage and a coat of paint can’t hide.

You labor and labor to get it just so. Then the ultimate compliment comes when your house is compared to a show home: new, empty and clean. To clean something well is to make it ‘like new’, to rub out the history of the thing, to hide its past. It’s like dyeing the grey out of your hair. It’s an obsession, as if that new car smell is itself the fountain of youth.

Our obsession with clean extends much further than our houses. We have clean eating, an obsession with food ‘purity’ turned maniacally into ‘body fascism’. In sexual terms, to be clean is to be STI-free, as if anybody with an STI is somehow ‘dirty’, despite that more people suffer one than do not. A ‘nice clean girl’ is one who has not had sex at all. Clean also means drug free, particularly associated with illegal drugs. Dirty is not only impure but somehow criminal.

Anyway, I secretly think that those with very clean houses must be really bored. Don’t you have better things to do? Sometimes when someone asks me what I’m going to do on a given day for which I do not have a prepared answer, I will say I’m going to clean the house. This is the same for me as saying nothing. Cleaning the house is time consuming. I might do one or two things, but I’m not going to waste an entire day. I am spoiled.

Yet I’ve definitely never ever heard my partner say that he will clean the house. He never plans to clean the house, it is just inconveniently thrust upon him sometimes. When I complain about his lack of tidiness, which is much worse than mine, many people say to me that women are the tidier sex. Probably only because women are expected to be: a self perpetuating stereotype.

Let’s not forget that women are engineers too. Frances Gabe’s self cleaning house is a remarkable achievement, but I admit that I did briefly wonder what else she might have achieved had she not been so concerned with the housekeeping. That reaction, as if housekeeping were not a worthy enough cause, might speak volumes about why the house did not gain traction with the consuming public. Or it might simply be that having to wear a raincoat and use an umbrella inside — or else leave — so your house could complete its cleaning cycle was just not practical enough for wide appeal.

The point is that both my sister’s comments and our early dismissal from our previous tenancy hurt my feelings immensely, much more than they perhaps should have and much more than they hurt my partner. Untidiness certainly does not matter to him, it does not matter to the one year old, and I am starting to realize that it should not matter to me either. In fact it really only seems to matter when tidy people come over.

Less is more, they say. So then do less: ditch the chemicals; keep your things; save your time and your feelings; don’t invite tidy people into your house.

And if all else fails and you find your family, your landlord, your partner, your baby, your friends and your guests all clamoring for you to get off your lazy ass, then I’m with Frances: let the house do it for you.

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Frances Gabe’s Obituary on the NY Times:


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